Over their career the Levellers have released nine albums (excluding compilations, live efforts and so on), seven of which were delivered after 1991’s groundbreaking ‘Levelling the land’. Seeing them now as a confident, stage-demolishing entity, it’s hard to reconcile this band with the bedraggled travellers who unleashed ‘Levelling the land’ to an indifferent press at a time when the airwaves were more-or-less ruled by the traumatic horrors of the grunge scene, and yet the album did well, hitting number 14 in the UK charts and eventually going platinum, defying all the expectations of gleefully snobbish critics (many of whose comments, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Uriah Heep, you’ll find cheekily reprinted on the insert to the special edition of the album) and earning it an eternal place in the hearts of Levellers fans the world over. ‘Levelling the land’ is a remarkable achievement. As an indication of its quality consider the fact that in the intervening years, when its songs do crop up, it is usually either as part of a devastating set opener or as the encore – in other words the songs from ‘Levelling the land’ are simply too good to be placed anywhere else in the set, and no matter how good the band’s subsequent output may have been, it is ‘Levelling the land’ which continues to dominate in many a fan’s mind.
The ‘Levelling the land’ tour then, a tour which sees The Levellers join the hosts of bands playing classic albums in full, was a highly anticipated tour and the fact that the band would be going out supported by the mighty Dreadzone made the affair all the more special. As a result there is an air of expectation hanging over Leicester’s O2 on this cold December Evening, not least because for many this rescheduled date seems to have taken an aeon to come around.
A decent, if rather small venue, Leicester’s O2 venue is one of the newest venues in the franchise’s canon and by the time we arrive (about ten minutes after the doors opened) the venue is already teeming with people. Edging through the crowd we were lucky to take up a spot at the barrier just in time for the mighty Dreadzone to appear to the sounds of an instrumental rendition of ‘Gangster’ before promptly flattening the venue with a selection of classic tracks and choice cuts from current album ‘eye on the horizon’. No matter how excited by the prospect of the Levellers people are, the wave of love that greets Dreadzone is a thing to behold. Playing evergreen tracks such as the Bob Marley sampling ‘love, life and unity (get up, stand up)’, Dreadzone have the packed out venue dancing and jumping, ‘Gangster’ unleashes a mass sing-a-long and proves that a song doesn’t have to be sombre and serious to have a serious message whilst ‘fight the power’ broadly appeals to a crowd tired of the endless machinations of devious politicians as it simultaneously gets their bodies moving. A Dreadzone concert is always a communal experience, the band clearly overjoyed by the reaction to their disappointingly short set and its notable that the crowd bay for more when it is finally time to leave the stage particularly as Levellers crowds can be somewhat partisan and remarkably indifferent to support acts when the mood takes them. Indeed, so wonderfully balanced and performed was Dreadzone’s set that the only niggle is that they did not play for long enough but seeing the band is always a pleasure and it is clear that they won the hearts of all present with their elegiac and joyful set.
A quick turnaround sees equipment rushed from the stage to be replaced by the solid wall of The Levellers’ backline. Finally a sheet is raised from the lighting gantry and the stage disappears from view. The chatter form the crowd is hushed in expectation and shortly a projector flickers into life charting the tumultuous social events of the last twenty years. Boos ring out as Thatcher appears on the screen and the opprobrium is hardly moderated when a frighteningly young Tony Blair flashes up on screen. Flash forward to Cameron and suddenly a roar goes up because the band have arrived on stage replacing the politicians with the heart-stopping ‘one way’. The band are on fire tonight, Mark Chadwick’s voice as beautifully powerful as ever and the rest of The Levellers matching the crowd’s enthusiasm every step of the way. Even human dynamo Jeremy, notable for his love of playing, seems to push himself one step further today, his dreadlocks flying as he bounds perpetually through a set list which the crowd know almost as well as the band. Indeed, throughout the night there are only a few songs which aren’t sung out by the audience word for word – one of which was new and the others b sides – but for everything else… it was remarkable we could hear the band at all! There’s little point in reciting the set list – it followed the record almost exactly, although the band broke things up by placing the b sides in the middle, where the LP would have split, rather than at the end. Highlights included a rousing rendition of ‘the boatman’ complete with the extended outro and green goddess dancers, a bonkers version of ‘the devil went down to Georgia’ (complete with dancing devils) and a thrilling ‘beautiful day’ which rounded out the second encore and left the crowd howling for more.
Overall it was a great Levellers show and although there are those who will argue about what was (and was not) included in the encores it would be impossible for a band with such a rich history to please everyone. Only one slight niggle slightly raised its head – Mark’s guitar was frequently too quiet thus removing the searing power to be found on early live album ‘headlights, white lines and black tar rivers’ and it was odd that it remained so throughout the concert; obviously this did little to diminish the overall beauty of the gig, but there are a couple of songs (‘fifteen years’, ‘the game’ in particular) which always benefit from the punkish kick up the backside of a heavily distorted guitar and it was a shame they were rendered less powerful than usual by an atypically polite sound mix. Nonetheless it was a thrilling experience overall and one that disappeared in the blink of an eye – the hallmark, I believe, of a great concert; and for the Levellers fans that made it, Christmas came rather early this year. A memorable and exciting show.
All photography © SonicAbuse courtesy of Jolanta Dabek